Lilly stepped inside to take a heavy shawl from her mother's hands. "Do
behave, child", she said with pleading blue eyes. "Behave silly Lilly", her
brother caroled. Oh, how she hated him for being such a jerk. Why did he
get away with his bad behaviour, while she was always told to behave, be
nice, be gentle. She knew it. He was supposed to become the next Count
Vorinnis, and she would only become Lady Vorwhatever, somebody's
attachment, a wife. There had been times when she didn't even dare dream of
that, but now - due to the skewed number of young Vorettes - she was
certain her father would use her to reach some of his own goals. Six years
ago she had been an illiterate young girl who was taught to cook and sew,
arrange flowers and sit still and silent for hours. Last time the Regent
had visited, the consort had been asking questions to her. She hadn't known
what to answer, so her father had answered them for her. It didn't take
long for Lady Vorkosigan to understand that the girl hadn't had any actual
schooling at all.
"A waste of time and money, milady", her father had declared with a pompous voice. "The girl shouldn't know more than she need for her Vorish duties." The lady had looked . . . stunning. Lilly had been looking at her, and she was amazed that her father hadn't fallen like a cut tree. The eyes - blazing, chilling - had made her father look smaller. Lilly couldn't remember the words, but the meaning was clear; if she didn't get any proper education, her father would have trouble finding a husband for her, Vor or no Vor. Three days after Winter Fair a young woman came to the estate. Miss Antonia - her tutor.
Lilly returned to the porch with the dark grey shawl over her shoulders.
"Ohmigod...", she said and grasped for something to hold on to, unable to
stop the words sputtering over her lips. Beside her father sat Lord Michel
"Mik" Arnau Vorsoisson, a cadet at Imperial Academy. He looked better than
she remembered. For a second she felt like fainting, but hugged her
mother's arm to gain control over herself again. Her mother looked at her
with worry, then she understood. The face softened and she paused, looking
at her daughter - as if for the first time in a very long while. She wasn't
a girl anymore, Lady Vorinnis realized. "Where have the years gone", she
thought to herself.
Lady Vorinnis was a short, timid woman. She was a rather bleak creature with her light, yellow blonde hair and eyes blue as the summer sky. For sixteen years she had been married to the Count, exactly half her life. She had felt relief when he had asked for her hand in marriage. A sixteen year old girl, eager to get away from her dull life as fifth daughter to a lowly Vor lord without a district. At first she couldn't believe her good fortune to have Lord Vorinnis, a District Count, asking her father to give his youngest daughter to him, the good man, mylord Jaque. As a well bred young Vor maiden, she didn't exactly know what was expected of her. That was the decision of her husband. She could still remember the harried look on her mother's face, but hadn't understood why until later, when she became part of the grown up, female, social intelligence network. The gossip said he had asked for many girls, and that she was last on his list, her parents unknowing of his reputation - or unwilling to see. Married life hadn't been what she expected - nor what she had dreamed of, but that was the way it was. She had sworn an oath to obey her husband, and that was all there was to it.
Nowadays he seldom touched her, and they had always had separated bedrooms. Her whole existence was focussed on her son, Arnau Padrig. For her daughter, the mishap, the no-son, she felt little. No, she felt a deep love for the poor little thing, but she didn't want to love her, knowing what would probably happen to her. You don't want things like that to happen to people you love. Raise the girl and marry her off to someone of her father's cronies. She knew other Vor mothers had a lot to say in these matters, but Count Vorinnis was not inclined to let his wife have a vote in his decisions. The daughter was his to use for whatever he found fitting. Countess Vorinnis had one purpose in life - to make things easy for her son and make sure that he survived, now when she couldn't produce any more offspring. Her whole worth lay in her ablility to make him a worthy heir to the Silvayne District. The son was her meal ticket, the daughter a burden. She straightened her face and sought for the features of her husband. He didn't scare her the way he used to - she had learned how to lead him like an ox by the nose, without him noticing. She turned her attention to her daughter again. The huge round eyes, the tense smile, a smile she tried to hide. Yes, the girl was undoubtedly interested in young Mik. Lady Vorinnis decided that she could at least do one good thing for her daughter - make sure that she didn't marry a man whom she loved. Her motherly instincts told her to keep the first born from the pains of disappointment.
Count Jaque felt tired after the long ride behind the three horses. The
tradition was to meet the honored guests at Laughing Water Shuttle Base in
the old fashioned way and then let them see the beautiful scenery from the
ground instead of from the air. In an attempt to get some exercise and
brush off the memory before the uncommonly honored guest, Regent Admiral
Lord Aral Vorkosigan came to the estate, he had decided to go the entire
way down to the shuttle base. There he had quite coincidentally met with
his nephew, Lord Mik Vorsoisson. The boy had gladly accepted an invitation
to come with him on the gruelling, two-hour sleigh ride back home. For a
fleeing moment, he had wondered what the boy was doing here, his father's
District being some 750 kilometers to the north west, but had soon
forgotten about it, happy to have company.
The boy was a well known guest in the Vorinnis castle. He had spent many summers and holidays here, as late as this last summer. Come to think of it - the boy hadn't spent very much time with him, Jaque thought. Excused himself to go hunting. The Count wondered what the boy hunted, he hadn't been dragging an awful lot of prey to the household, even though he had been taught useful ways to catch both imported and native prey. Maybe he just wanted to be alone. Life must be hell in the city with all hellish new galactic gadgets around.
With stifling steps the Count left the sleigh. A servant in red and gold
gathered the reins and led the horses away. He looked at his wife. She was
beginning to look old. Am I too? He had, after all, married a little
girl, and before him stood a fully grown woman. That was, let's see now,
sixteen years ago. Time passes quickly when you grow old, his father used
to say. At fifty four, the Count was inclined to agree. He had married
little Marya to be sure to get many sons and a wife who would do what she
was told. The first child had been a daughter. A miracle that he hadn't
beaten his wife to death then - or a misfortune. He couldn't decide which,
but knew that he had gone too far that time. Little Marya was his last hope
to have a Vor wife. She mustn't be squandered.
He had made everything in his power to make sure he would get a son - wearing his boots on when banging his wife - that was the best way, he had been told. The fault was hers, one of five sisters, of course the blame was to be hers. He had beaten his wife soundly, and she had been hospitalized for four months. The doctor ordered him to stay away from her if he didn't want to jeopardize her life and health. After that he had been able to control his anger a little better.
It took a good while before she let him near her again without trembling, and yet another few years to persuade her to stop going to the Baba for meds. She got pregnant in no-time, and this time it was a son, but the wounds from before surfaced. She had almost died on him and the doctor had to cut away things. Now she was barren. Things like that could be mended he had heard, but the cost was awesome and the way to do it was galactic - not natural. Maybe it was worth it, to have yet another son - he hadn't made up his mind yet.
The only son, the only legitimate son, came running down the steps. The
Count stopped breathing for a second, but the boy didn't fall. Always this
fear of his heir getting injured.
What if something happened to him, Jaque thought to himself. There was of course his sister Tanya's son Mik. He was to inherit his father's district. What if... what if I give my daughter to Mik? Then I would doubly secure my ancestral line. The idea made sense. It would be on the female side of course, but it would save his name, and he almost regarded Mik his own son. The fact that they were cousins nagged at his conscience, but he put it aside.
"Arnau, my boy", Count Vorinnis put his hand on his sons shoulder, and Arnau straightened his back. The boy was tall for his age, thank god he hadn't inherited his mother's bent stature. He glanced at his daughter. She looked feverish.
"You're not going to be ill now, when we have such honored guests, daughter. You look awful. Get inside, on the double." She stared at him, her eyes turning dark, shoting small violet lightnings of anger at him. How does she do that, he wondered. He stared back with a growing grin. She turned on the spot and stomped off into the foyer, better not to give the man more reason to "educate" her in his own violent ways.
Lord Mik Vorsoisson wasn't sure coming here was a very good idea. Merely a
few minutes before he exited the gates at Imperial Academy, his father had
called him to say he would be away on "pressing matters" for a few days.
The reason for Mik to return home had vanished into thin air. He could stay
in Vorbarr Sultana, but didn't have the energy to change his ticket and
find somewhere better to stay than the Academy. Arriving at the airport,
the airliner informed that the flight was cancelled due to technical
causes, and he was rescheduled on a carrier to Laughing Water instead.
While waddling around waiting for his commuter flight, he met his Uncle
Jaque. Letting fate guide his footsteps, he accepted the invitation to stay
at the Vorinnis estate.
During the sleigh ride he remembered his decision to stay as far away as possible from the Count, and made a mental note in capital letters to keep his distance in the future. When he was younger his father often sent him here for all sorts of reasons; lack of mother, his father's grief, educational matters etc. First he had liked it, Count Jaque being like a second father, taking him out into the woods fishing, hunting and minding the District business. Then the Count had received his own longed for son, and partly lost interest in Mik, who remained more or less as someone for the Count to experiment on how to bring up boys. When Mik was thirteen the Count had told him that he was grown up, and had taken him to drink with Jaque's old friends. Mik didn't dare tell his father about that, but felt that this new tack in his upbringing wasn't something he would approve of. On Mik's seventeenth birthday, the Count had made him drink and later in the evening he had negotiated the young boy to a room with a solitary woman waiting.
"I've done all I can to teach you all a man should know. Now someone else has got to take you the final steps into manhood." He had left laughing, leaving Mik with this woman. It had not been very pleasant at all, and after that he avoided the Count, but still didn't dare tell his father. Out of tradition he had come back here, but had mostly stayed out of sight. Now he cursed himself for being so duffed that he had accepted the invitation. He blamed the last week of exams and exercises. Four months from now he would graduate from the Imperial Academy. Then he would be grown up, then he could do whatever pleased him. He would not set foot in Silvayne District again, for sure.
The difference between his father and the uncle was striking. His father was always courteous toward women, while his uncle used them as cattle. "They have two purposes", he used to say. "Producing good men, and being a nice, warm hiding place for the salami. A good woman is one meter tall, has a flat head and big ears." Mik used to laugh just to not stick out. Now he went away when he heard things like that.
"Now there, Mik. There's a pretty thing to rest your eyes upon one day,
don't you think?", the Count said as the front door banged shut behind
Lilly. Mik woke up from his reveries. "What? Where?"
"You're Vor - you should have a Vor wife, goddammit. There are ten young Vorlings on seven Vor maidens. You mustn't marry outside your caste. Lilly is yours." Mik stood paralyzed. The last ten years the Count had told him to "keep his fingers out of the candy box", to "care for the ware", or more explicitly; "if you touch her, I'll kill you". Mik had never had a thought in that direction, considering Lilly to almost be his sister, and now the Count wanted to toss her at him. The confusion made his vision twirl, as if someone had picked up his views of reality, given them a good shake and then to put them down to check on the results.
"Eh...", he frantically searched his mind for something to say. "Er..." The image of cascading dark hair and blazing violet eyes was left on his retinas. Silly Lilly. Wife? Oh, oh. Beware of the Count's splendid ideas.
Lady Marya felt her hopes dwindle. An ally. I need an ally in this mess,
she thought. Mik. He didn't look too happy about this. How can I get rid
"Mik, dear nephew", she parted her lips in a motherly smile. "What an unsuspected occasion, and a favourable visit it is, too. Could you perchance give me some inspiration on a Winter Fair gift? Come, let's make a nice cup of tea, and - dear husband", she turned to her master. "You look exhausted. Wouldn't you better have a hot bath before supper, to get the damp out of your bones." She was fussing like a mother hen, trying to cover up her true intentions.
Jaque raised his head. No woman was to tell him what he should do or not. "Tired?! My ass! I'll see to the horses myself, goddammit", he turned on his heels and marched off in the tracks of the sleigh. His wife looked indifferent, raised a brow and stared after him with ill concealed contempt. There, good boy, keep your butt out of my kitchen, she thought.
Count Jaque's welcome was polite. He was torn between his opinions: on one hand he thought that Lord Vorkosigan was a radical who had betrayed his forefathers when marrying that galactic piece of meat, and on the other hand he felt awe for the late Emperor Ezar's appointed Regent and fosterer of the Child Emperor Gregor. He succeeded in keeping his good humor in the middle of the road, rather than jumping from opinion to opinion like a hysterical woman, showing his whole register of emotions.
The sleigh ride was worse than Cordelia could remember. The weather was
dull and uninspiring. The scenery could have been wonderful, but was lost
behind an impenetrable curtain of snowflakes falling silently and heavily,
making her head turn nauseatingly. There was one new thing though, she
couldn't remember that the sleigh was heated last time. Warmth came
billowing from under the layers of fur. Cosy, but her nose was still out in
the open, freezing to a point well below zero.
At their arrival a heap of people was standing on the porch. It was supposed to be family, but it could've been anyone as far as Cordelia was concerned. They were all covered in black, grey and brownish mantles and shawls, impossible to distinguish from one another.
The formal greetings had to wait until they had all hatched their ways out of their shells in the foyer. Cordelia was glad to see that the little girl had grown to become a proud and tall teenager. She had had a tutor since the last visit, but Cordelia didn't dare think it was because of her untimely outburst at the Count. Still, the girl looked at her with something akin to worship.
"What school are you applying to now, then?", Cordelia asked. The girl looked bewildered.
"Ma'am?", she said cautiously. "I'm well educated to marry a man of my father's liking, and to take care of my husband's children." She didn't know what the lady wanted to hear, but she looked disappointed. She knew very well what her parents wanted to hear, and they looked very pleased, so she decided to get the lady for herself somehow for a small talk.
"So, you are not seriously planning to pursue your interests and get a higher education", Cordelia continued.
"My ambition is to get a family to care for, milady. Nothing else." The girl hastily glanced at her father, who was standing with the hands on his hips, with a face saying "Thought you could change things around here, did you?".
Cordelia almost believed the girl, but there was something about her that told another story. With her mother and father around, it wasn't a good time to investigate it further, though.
The foyer stretched to the other side of the building, all the way up to
the second floor's stone-carved ceiling. The bottom floor had a number of
doors in different sizes, the ones on the right-hand side leading to the
servants quarters and the domestic area, the ones on the left-hand side
leading to the residence area. Further down the hall, Cordelia could
glimpse a row of giant windows facing south. On the second floor, galleries
covered both walls. Good architecture from a strict defence point of view.
They were ushered into a little windowless parlor by their host, for a
secluded chat and hot wine with snacks.
"I ordered your luggage to the Oak Room, mylord. Your wife's bags will be put in one of the other guestrooms further down the hallway, so she won't bother you too much." Aral began to clench his jaws.
"Six years ago we accepted that arrangement, out of politeness, not to make you lose your face in front of your household", he said. "This time I ordered my personal secretary to send you explicit instructions on how to accommodate us." Could Kou have missed that?
"Oh, yes, mylord. I recieved that one. But, you see, you're in my district now, and here I am the law. We don't sell out on our traditions here in Silvayne District, and - forgive me for being blunt - you're here as Lord Vorkosigan, not even a Count yet. A Count doesn't take orders from a count's heir - especially not in his own house." Count Jaque looked friendly enough, but the tone chilled Cordelia to her backbone.
"I will not accept that my wife be treated differently from myself", Aral hissed through clenched teeth.
"That will easily be arranged, mylord. I will grant her no extra benefits on behalf of her weak sex."
"Don't you get it? I will not accept this from you!" Aral's voice was a mere whisper. Jaque lowered his voice too and smiled wolfishly. "And what exactly are you going to do about it. Sir."
Aral kept staring at his opponent, but raised and smoothed his voice. "Cordelia, I think it's time to say good-bye to our host."
"Ah, so you plan to return to Vorbarr Sultana, don't you?" Jaque said gleefully. "Bad idea. No can do."
"Oh, yes I can. Just watch me." Aral started for the door.
"No, you can't - purely technically." Jaque said matter of factly. Lord Vorkosigan stopped in midstride to look at the Count. A sudden realization struck him. "Where are my men? Where is Lieutenant Koudelka, and Pym, the guards?"
"At Laughing Water Shuttle Base, I'm afraid. I'm sorry to inform you that there was a sabotage by a mechanic - he will be duly punished, of course - and then there is the weather... Maybe they'll be here in time to escort you back home."
"How dare you?" Aral's face turned a couple of shades whiter. "Are you prepared to turn this into a national incident?"
"Are you?" The Count looked smug. He knew he had the Regent in his hand now. How could the man who was supposed to guard the planet, the strategic genius, the Butcher of Komarr, fall so easily into a trap like this? Because it hadn't looked like a trap. "The same procedure as last time, sir? Yes, sirrah." A traditional sleigh ride. No room for security, which was expected to watch from lightflyer, not from the ground. The color of Aral's face went back to normal again, but red blotches started to grow on his cheeks and neck. Fooled.
Count Vorinnis sketched a bow. "I will leave you for now, mylord, m'lady. The dinner will be served shortly." He left the room and locked the door. Cordelia drew a breath to say something, but slowly exhaled instead and stared into her mug.
"OK", Aral said. "Assume that we will be staying here for a while." They looked at each other. "Dear Captain, where are you when I need you?" She nodded slowly. Hostage drill.
The plan was easy. First priority; find the hidden mechanism to the secret
passage. Second priority; find a comconsole and alert Illyan, then return
to the parlor and await rescue. The snow had probably hidden every trace of
the sleigh by now, and Kou et al should be doing whatever was necessary to
find them. Contingency; if someone saw them, the plan was to run like mad
for any means of transportation. As long as the Count didn't want to hurt
them, it was decidedly better to stay inside on a night like this. To wait
for rescue without starting any violent action was the idea.
They both had com links, but they couldn't get in contact with their security. Maybe the parlor was secured for interrogation, or the District was so backward that there simply was no repeaters for the signals in the vicinity.
Aral and Cordelia searched, pressed, pushed and tore, but to no avail. At the sound of a key in the old mechanical - traditional - lock, they hastily seated themselves on the sofa. Lady Vorinnis entered with a tray. An armed guard took post outside the room. Aral regretted his decision to go unarmed, to rely on bodyguards, and decided that capturing lady Vorinnis with his bare hands wouldn't get him closer to his goal. They were hungry - but could they trust the food to be free of sedatives or poison? When she put down the tray in front of Cordelia, Marya said lowly "I merely obey my husband, dear lady, but there are others in the house who is putting the Regent before the Count. Be patient."
Cordelia wasn't sure she had heard correctly, but didn't dare ask her to repeat the message. Without a word she started to help Lady Marya lay the table.
Aral looked disbelieving at his plate, but Cordelia started eating. She looked up and nodded reassuring at him. They ate in total silence.
Mik had some troubles deciding if he was to play the hero, or play it safe
and simply call ImpSec. He supposed the Regent knew exactly what to do, but
he also suspected that the parlor was closely monitored. Better let Lilly
be the gobetween. Better lull the Count into believeing he had an obedient
follower in his nephew.
It was close to dinner time, so he entered the dining room. Arnie was there already and wanted him to tell everything about Vorbarr Sultana and the Academy. He told Arnie listlessly about the classes and training, while trying to prepare what he was to say to the Count.
The man in question arrived and waved at a retainer in red and gold to start serving. Afterward Mik couldn't remember what they had eaten. "This coming summer, boy", the Count said. Mik assumed they were talking about family matters.
"I'm your man", he said, balancing on the sharp edge of truth, not wanting to commit to anything, but eager not to make his uncle suspiscious. "Is there anything I can do to show my abilities", he asked, hoping to lead the Count's thoughts in the direction of the hostage situation.
The Count scrutinized him. "Well, I'm very short on good men that I can trust. Tonight I'm going to have a tê-à-tê with the Regent. I want you to take charge in my new surveillance central as my second in command."
"I'm sworn to follow my master", was the only thing Mik could say, thinking of the lecture he still hadn't taken, about "the responsibility to break oaths" by Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan. He let out a silent sigh of relief that he hadn't engaged in any premature actions. This was better than his wildest dreams.
Count Jaque Vorinnis felt confident. His self-appointed mission was to make
the Regent see, make him conscious of the damaging influence that came with
the galactic culture and technology. The Barrayaran Vor soul was at stake
here. These new things were not natural.
He was sure the Regent would change his mind if somebody could just tell him what was going on. He was also sure that fate itself had sent his nephew to him, to help him save Barrayar.
After a rather short-cut dinner, they left for the central. The Count made
a précis on the plans, and Mik boggled at his assumption that the Regent's
staff would just sit around until the weather got better.
As soon as the Count had left, Mik ordered the only assisting guard to check the whereabouts of the Count's security staff. He wanted to know what he was up against. He also ordered a check on the Regent's security - if they had left the shuttle base yet. Seeing that sergeant Dupont was occupied, he wrote a short note directly to ImpSec HQ on the emergency address he had learnt just the other week in the basic course on Imperial Security. He didn't dare make it a voice call. "#1 OK. Situation 4-40. Flight 2600h. 640319-5545." A short message. If the Count checked the log Mik hoped it would take him some time to understand what it was and who had written it. He trusted the ImpSec analysts to decipher it correctly. The last number was his student ID at ImpAc, something that the Count didn't know anything about. He only hoped he remembered the code for kidnapping correctly. ImpSec ought to be able to make something out of it though.
The simple plan was to take the Regent and the Consort to the stables and
the lightflyer and then to Laughing Water. Mik had checked the lightflyer
and the charges. All systems go.
The vid pick-up registered the Count entering the parlor. "Mylord Regent, I hope dinner was to your liking. You know I don't want anything else but your undivided attention."
"You won't get it if you don't let us use a bathroom very soon", Aral snapped. The Count smiled sourly. "Just so, mylord. Just so. The faster you come to your senses and listen, the faster you'll get out of here."
Lilly checked the list. "Food for four, clothes for two men and two women,
shovel, vibraknives, leather bands, map, compass..."
Mik had been disappointed to hear that the pair of com links he had given her at Winter Fair some winters ago were confiscated by her father for being galactic toys not fit for a young Vor girl. Arnie had received them instead. She tiptoed into his "workshop" - the boy had three rooms to himself - she found the com links in a drawer. At last one positive thing about being his cleaning lady. Triumphantly she tiptoed back out. Now she needed to talk to Mik about the items she hadn't found.
The existence of the surveillance central had come as a total surprise to
her. It was located in the basement together with the guards quarters and
she had always kept away from there on her secret wanderings in the house.
The news had made her angry beyond the point of no return in the scheme of
stopping her father's activities. When she saw were her father had put
monitors, she snapped "The hippocritical clown", which made Mik laugh. "Is
that the worst you can say", he asked mockingly. She retorted with a
harangue she had heard the stable boy use, which made him loose his smile
and lift his eyebrows.
Now she went into the central with one mug of tea. "Oh, I'm sorry Sergeant. I forgot to bring one for you, too. I'll be back in a minute." This was a cue to Mik.
"Oh, don't bother, dear. I'm sure the Sergeant doesn't mind stretching his legs for a few minutes. Or don't you find it appropriate to be alone with me before we are married?" She knew this was coming, but couldn't keep from blushing. The slander was all over the place by now. The Sergeant made a face of "nudge-nudge, know-what-you-mean" and left them.
"I have everything, exept for the emergency beacons and the vibraknives, but I took a couple of ordinary knives instead."
"That will do nicely. You have already been of more help than I expected from you." He looked at her. Funny, he had seen her just as usual - silly Lilly - until they started planning. She was smart, something she had hidden well. He saw that the lines of her face was loosing it's childishness and he groped for his wallet and the photo of his mother. He always carried it, mostly for his father's sake. The resemblance was truly striking. He felt a vortex open in his stomach. The big almond-shaped eyes, the long nose, an inviting red mouth, perfect for . . . he snapped out of his thoughts. This is not happening, he said to himself. It's my hormones playing games with my body. It's silly Lilly, fergodsake. He blushed slightly and hid it by looking at the monitor, where the Count was walking around gesticulating wildly at the solid form that was the Regent, who looked like a caged lion preparing to attack.
"I have collected things for four people", she said sullenly.
"Eh...?" He returned to presence.
"I have collected things for four people", she said with more self-assurance in her voice.
"Why in the whole galaxy did you do that for?" Had he missed something?
"I will not stay here. My father will beat me to pieces to find out what happened. It doesn't bother him if I do know or don't - as long as he can beat somebody. And, if something happens with the lightflyer, we could split to find different ways to a rendevous point."
He looked at her with new interest. "How can you know things like that?"
"My father's got a library, remember?"
"But it's closed and he's got the only key. He doesn't even let me in without a good reason. How come you've been there?"
"There are ways, and he doesn't think girls are smart enough to do something like reading a book out of pure curiosity."
"But he has mostly military books..."
"So...?" she said teasingly.
"How much have you read", he asked curiously.
"Enough to know that you need certain things to survive out there," she jerked her head, "and on a mission like this you need contingency plans, 'cause 'No plan ever survives the first contact with reality'".
He stared at her, stunned. "Why haven't you talked to me about this before?"
"You were one of the Count my father's sheep, remember", she answered sourly. "I wouldn't turn myself in, would I? I might be uneducated, but I'm not stupid..."
"But what about the gibberish earlier today then, about not wanting to study? 'All I want is a family, milady'", he said with a squeaking voice, wiggling his head.
She slapped gently at him, and said indignantly "What would you have of me? My parents were listening." He caught her hand in the motion. She froze. Their eyes met, the moment stretched. He changed his grip and moved her hand to his mouth, kissed it according to procedure. "Milady, I stand corrected. You are not silly." She tugged at her hand, but he kept it still. "I like you, I like you very much." Her eyes dilated, her heart raced. He laughed. "But don't go tell that to your mother." The moment had passed, and they turned simultaneously toward the screens. The Count was gone.
"Out, out", he said and pushed her toward the door.
She could hear the heavy treads of boots coming at her behind the corner in the corridor. Nowhere to go. Panic. She felt a cloth at her waistband and started to scrub a window. She saw that it had lots of traces from Arnie's nose and greasy fingers, so she would have a very good reason for being here. Her father passed her as if she hadn't been there at all. At the door he turned and said "Go to your mother and tell her to take the lady to the loo." The door closed.
Lilly got permission from her mother to show Lady Vorkosigan to the
bathroom: "Mylady, I am to escort you to let you freshen up."
They went straight to the Powder Room, the central bathroom on the other side of the foyer. She didn't really know where to start, but finally collected enough courage to say "I apologize for my strange behaviour earlier today. I wasn't aware of my father's machinations. My cousin and I am planning to get you out of here tonight. ImpSec is informed. Just rest and recuperate as much as possible. I'm sorry, but I can't tell you more." Cordelia who had been totally consumed by her bodily needs for quite a while, missed the beginning of the message. When the girl repeated it, Cordelia realized that there were no guards around. Just the girl. Small graces, Cordelia thought. If it hadn't been for the Count's primitive methods in trying to keep the attention of his hostage, the girl might as well be lying unconscious in a closet by now. "Help to get away, that sounds nice", she said encouragingly to the girl.
The plan sounded very close to the one she and Aral had decided on in a short-worded coded discussion. She was almost glad that this mess had happened. They had spent hours and hours of training for different attacks. Suddenly all those hours weren't in vain. Even smaller graces, she thought with a snort.
After a brief report from Mik, Jaque sent him on a mission much like the one Lilly was dealing with. He had two guards with him to escort the Regent, and wondered just when and where he was supposed to tell Lord Vorkosigan about the rescue. The guards took post outside the Powder Room and the Lords entered it. They almost collided with the two women coming out, and they all stepped inside hastily and closed the door. Aral went to the private parts of the room, and Mik found himself facing the Regent's Consort. He didn't know what to say, but started uncertainly; "Mylady... My uncle's behaviour is outrageous. I'm playing along to lull him into trusting me so that I can help you." He made a short pause. "I have sent a message to ImpSec HQ..." He was interrupted by Lord Vorkosigan who came back, smiling wolfishly, and put the water on maximum. He motioned the cadet to come closer. While Aral scrubbed his hands diligently, Mik told him the highlights of the coming night, and went to Lilly who was sitting on a little sofa. He sat down beside her, letting the guests take their time.
At the same time, back in the surveillance central, Count Jaque was
frantically searching for the pick-up from the Powder Room. There was no
sound, just vid. When he saw Mik walking over to Lilly, who was sitting on
the sofa, he ran to the old surveillance room and put on the audio loudly
from the Powder Room and ran back to the screen in the new room. They were
sitting too close for comfort - Jaque's comfort...
"Are you sure you still want to do it", he heard his nephew say, saw him caressingly move a strand of Lilly's hair, feeble-fingeredly putting it back with the rest of the dark straws. "Yes", she said and held her head high, looking at him with big eyes. "All right", he said mildly, "at midnight it is, then." They smiled at each other and Lilly rose and motioned to the woman that it was time to go.
Count Jaque sat back heavily in his chair. Slowly he went back to turn off the audio pick-up. His face changed gradually into a frozen mask of rage. The monitoring hadn't been the best, but it was evident, beyond every scrap of doubt, what the young couple was planning. Think that he - Count Jaque Robert Vorinnis of Silvayne District - had nurtured such a snake in his own home. Hadn't he told the boy to keep his fingers to himself? Couldn't the testosterone-prone lout wait until after the marriage to get his daughter? His eyes narrowed to slits, his heavy breathing calmed down. He would wait for them to get together, and then, bursting in through her door, he would expose them, in the act. A savage smile spread over his face.
A good hour later the second message arrived. The classification was upped
two degrees, and a secretary came to deliver it to Illyan. He put it aside
for the moment, to put a quick end to an endless discussion about the
security clearance of the catering staff. About a quarter of an hour later
he read it and immediately returned to his office.
The message said: "#1 out of sight. Surveillance craft sabotaged. Heavy weather." He had the secretary find Lieutenant Koudelka at the Laughing Water Shuttle Base.
"OK, Kou. What is happening out there?"
"Count Vorinnis has gone in the direction of the Vorinnis Castle together with the Admiral and Lady Vorkosigan. We had trouble with our lightflyer and not so long ago found out that there had been a sabotage. We have lost them on our close range screen, but the sleigh never deviated from it's prescribed route. Besides, the weather is awful down here. Snowing cats and dogs, so to speak."
"Is someone from security with them?", Illyan didn't sound as angry as he felt.
"No, not exactly, sir. But Vorinnis should know the way like the palm of his hand, and -"
"So, we have nobody guarding the Regent?", Illyan could feel the blood leaving his head.
"Well, Vorinnis being a Count, our knowing of the location etc, etc, made us decide to cool things down a bit", Koudelka said.
"Who's we?", Illyan sounded irritated. "Since when have the security staff got instructions to work as a Betan committee?", he asked, but knew the answer before he had ended the question. Since Captain Naismith had become Lady Vorkosigan, Illyan realized with a shrug. "Kou. Move your butt. I don't care how you do it, or how much it costs. Get in contact with the Regent, you incompetent ..."
"Commander Illyan, sir. Repeat, please."
"Forget it", Illyan said tiredly. "Just find Aral, will you. And keep a very slim profile on this one. Airtight as a matter of fact."
Koudelka went through the crowded departure hall. All flights were delayed
due to the awful weather. People had made makeshift beds and were preparing
to stay the night if necessary. This didn't look good. He came to the
Laughing Water Shuttle Base Chief Executive Manager's door. It was locked.
A passing guard motioned in the direction of the Deli Restaurant.
With rising irritation Koudelka pressed himself through the masses that,
quite involontarily, couldn't make room for him, despite his spiffy greens
and Horus Eyes. He imagined the manager to sit gobbling delikatessen at a
dire hour like this. It was a strain to be cool and polite, as if nothing
was the matter, asking for miracles by men who couldn't perform magic. He
wanted to yell at everybody to rise and go look for the Regent, but that
was the last thing he could do. Airtight? Right! Happy face, no matter
what, he thought glumly, with a set jaw and the corners of his mouth
At last he found the manager, at the bar, talking to the bartender. What at first looked as a case of AWOL, turned out to be a conscientious manager wanting to make sure there was enough food and drinks to sustain the crowded place through the night.
Having heard the pressing needs for a flyer, the manager helped Kou to contact the managers of the airliners. Not a single one of them would accept extra pay to lift on a night like this. Kou came back to his collegues without having succeeded. He hadn't even succeeded in buying the beers that Captain Vanderlanz had asked him to get.
"Why don't we have a contest: First One to Find the Regent Wins", someone
said, making the whole lot laugh.
"We fucked up, and I don't intend to go advertising about that," Koudelka snapped at the jester. They calmed down quickly and found an unprecedented interest in their shoes instead.
Kou sat down and waved to the ImpSec Captain in charge of the Regent's security.
"Vanderlanz - the lid is on, and we have to get to the Admiral. I don't dare confiscate the civilian flyers. If they say they can't fly - they can't fly. We would only risk a bigger Situation if something went wrong with them. Any suggestions?"
The Laughing Water Shuttle Base was also the Laughing Water Security Base.
This was not common knowledge. Not even to the Count of the District. The
base was built partly with the Count in mind, and his political bends. It
was a small Security Base however. The grotto-like underground rooms were
mostly empty, waiting for crews and crafts. There were four security guards
and their hover bikes, which Koudelka requisitioned promptly. He also,
miraculously, reached the regional base in the Vorsoisson District. They
had a transport flyer that they immediately put into the air. It would take
it's time, though, and wasn't due until about 2400 hours.
The weather was getting worse. An increasing wind blowing in gusts. There were no other Imperial vehicles close enough that could land in open terrain in this weather. Kou had nurtured an image of ImpSec to be able to be everywhere at all times. The image disappeared in a whiff. A quick calculation showed that the hover bikes would reach the castle about the same time as the transport flyer - if they left now. Two of the Regent's guards were sent away together with two of the local guards on the bikes.
Despite all the talk about finding the Regent no matter what, there is a physical limit for what money can buy. Kou had reached it. There was nothing more he could do, than sit around and wait for the transport flyer.
Two hours later one of the remaining ImpSec guards arrived to take Koudelka
with him to a secured comconsole. Illyan was on the screen looking like
death warmed over.
"Lieutenant Koudelka. I have received a message that can only have been written by someone at Vorinnis Castle. It's sent from there, and says that the Regent is OK, that he is held hostage by fanaticals, and that there will be a break for escape at midnight. The coded signature can be either of three: a) the number to the Emperor's tailor, b) the ID number of an ImpAc cadet named Lord Michel Vorsoisson, and c) a high classification code that the Cetagandans will be attacking next week. Somehow, I'd put my money on the ImpAc cadet. We have checked the roster, and Vorsoisson is a close relative to the Vorinnis family. His father is an old friend of Aral's and says that he can't imagine the boy to wanting to harm the Regent. So, old boy, you may count on some help when you arrive at the site."
After a brief report to Illyan, Koudelka returned to the sorry lot that was the Regent's Guardians. With greyish faces they understood the cause to why the Regent couldn't be reached on com-link, and decided on radio silence. They would just scan the region for the comm-links.
Count Vorinnis dried the forehead with the back of his hand. The air in the
parlor was asphyxiating from hours of aimless discussions. They had come to
some sort of stalemate, a logical clinch.
"I understand your concern, but your opinion is not backed by very many people", Aral said for the umpteenth time.
The woman continued: "You want to preserve, to stop any kind of evolution. That is stagnation. Life is dynamic and forever changing". Jaque realized he was on the verge of insanity, he had stopped telling her to shut up, and had started to listen instead. What she said made more and more sense.
"I'm willing to discuss the way we are changing things, but I cannot discuss ways to stop the changes", Aral went on. This was the most positive line he had managed to get the Regent to say; the most positive thing the Regent had agreed to give his word as Vorkosigan upon.
Jaque checked his chrono. "I say we sleep on the matter, mylord", he said and rose hastily. The time was closing in on midnight and his domestic duties called him to his daughter's adventures. He ordered the guards to escort his "honored guests" to their sleeping quarters, and hurried to to the surveillance central.
Everything in the house was silent and still. He couldn't see anything that rose his suspicion. Lilly's room was dark, but on the IR screen he could see bulging forms in the bed. He hadn't yet installed a monitor in the room where Mik was sleeping. Time passed. Nothing happened. They had said midnight, or was it after midnight? The time was well beyond 26:07. Was it even tonight? His thoughts wandered as he waited.
Lilly and Mik were waiting in the servant's corridors close to the Oak Room.
"Tell me what you really want, then", said Mik. She was glad the corridor
wasn't lit as she blushed, but thinking of what she wanted from Mik didn't
hurt the way it had as late as this afternoon. Mik wasn't an impeccable
hero. He had his doubts about life, had made his mistakes, and most
important of all, he listened to her and followed the better part of her
advice. She had felt self-esteem in herself all her life, but for the first
time she could remember, she noticed esteem coming from the outside, from
someone else. It was as if her body grew bigger, she could feel it
extending into the corridor. The darkness was limitless.
"Did you hear that?" His voice pulled her back to the physical realm. "I think they are on their way."
They pressed their ears against the little door, but the evidence of life on the other side came to them as streams of light shining on the opposite side of the corridor. They waited, breathless, for the guards to lock the door behind the hostage. After a short while they heard Aral whistle a tune saying "the coast is clear".
Lilly pressed the mechanism to open the door and wave for the guests to come this way.
"Good evening, mylady, mylord", they said in chorus, turned on a giant search light and opened two big bags to pull out their contents.
"I'm extremely sorry, ma'am, but it would be very helpful if you could wear..." she just moved her lips saying "men's clothes" and held up a pair of trousers for inspection. Aral looked amused, and turned to his wife.
"Just like in the good old days then, dear Captain."
There it was again, why did he call her Captain? She tasted the words 'Captain Lilly Vorinnis'. She liked it.
The guests were very professional about it all and dressed quickly. Knives and other objects were distributed, and Lilly felt her skin tickle when she saw how Lady Vorkosigan acted. Not confused and afraid like other women she had met, but competently and soldierly. I want to be like her, she thought wildly.
The escape to the stables was easy. Nobody watched the escape route, but in
the stable two guards kept watch.
"We could use the same method as before", Mik chuckled at the memory in the surveillance central.
"What was that?", asked Aral.
"Oh, we simply played that Lilly and I wanted to be alone and ordered the guard to step out for a while."
Aral and Cordelia laughed. "That sounds useful, but I have noticed that the guards doesn't have any com-links", Aral mused. "Count Jaque is so traditional, more than what is good for him. Why don't you, Lord Michel, simply go over to the guards and say something that they would believe, and that you will relieve them from guard duty until they come back."
"Right", he said and stalked off around the back of the stables, so it would look as if he came from the main building.
"Guards! The Count's daughter has disappeared, and the Count is searching. Go to the central and wait for the Count to give you further orders." They snapped to attention and marched off. He felt proud. The Count must be in bed by now, so the guards could be sitting until dawn before anyone noticed that the flyer was gone.
Mik went back and waved his co-elopers inside to the flyer. Lilly and Cordelia climbed into the craft while Mik and Aral opened the barn doors. The wind blew even harder now. Mik shook his head.
"It won't be easy, but it's not Kyril Island", Aral said to calm down the cadet.
"A-1 calling Laughing Water Shuttle Base", Cordelia had put on the pilot's headset. "Alpha One calling anybody out there."
A faint voice talked to her. "Alpha One, Laughing Water Shuttle Base here, over."
She didn't have to wait long until she heard the homey voice of Lieutenant Koudelka. "Yes, milady. I can see you on the scanner." Koudelka drew a deep sigh of relief. "What is your position?" Cordelia described the situation.
"OK", said Kou. "We are only a few minutes away from the castle. If the coast is clear, as you presume, then get out of there and wait for us to take care of Vorinnis. There is no going back to Laughing Water tonight, if we can avoid it - the weather and all."
Count Jaque was starting to wonder why his daughter hadn't moved for
several minutes. The reminiscences of his own pranks made him slowly reach
for the comconsole to check the temp screen. The bed was cold - it was
"Not there... where would I go, how would I have done it", Jaque talked to himself. "The stables, rolling in the hay." He giggled and felt strong from the adrenalin and righteous anger. He was so caught up in his visions of Mik and Lilly in the mid of yellow straws that he almost forgot his mantle. Going back to get it he passed the arms locker, opened it and pulled out a nerve disruptor. Opening the exit door, he almost fell over the stable guards. "Wah!!! Men! What are you doing?"
"Reporting in to help in the search for Miss Vorinnis", the older guard said loudly.
"She's not... how do you know she's missing, goddammit?" He motioned the guards to follow him, and started to run into the black and white haze, through the drifts of snow.
Mik and Aral had taken the seats of the pilot and co-pilot. The flyer moved
slowly out through the barn doors. The headlights showed a white wall of
falling and tumbling snow. Suddenly Mik saw three figures in front of the
vehicle. One meter in front of the Count he stopped. A nerve disruptor can
do things like that to people.
"You damn idiot!!", the Count yelled. "Couldn't you wait until after the marriage? There are plenty of girls for the taking around here. Why her? Why now?"
Aral grinned at Mik. "Didn't you say you played lovers? You seem to have convinced him." Mik made a face at his Regent. "It was his splendid idea from the beginning. Imagine, he wants me to marry my first cousin, who's like a sister to me. It's not natural."
"That does it", Aral said seriously. "He'll get therapy, trust me."
Behind the three figures five blazing searchlights went on. A loudspeaker voice ordered the men to put down their weapons. The Count turned to look on the new-comers. "I'll be damned", was the last words he uttered before the stunners were fired.
The mopping-up part was easy. There was a total of ten guards at the castle, all of which surrendered without hesitation; the Count wasn't there to order them what to do, and the ImpSec soldiers looked mighty superior in their modern outfit with gleaming weaponry. It was the rest that made Aral cringe.
After securing the buildings, Aral, Cordelia and their saviours were
admitted into the Grand Hall by Countess Vorinnis. She had been abruptly
awakened, but sat fully dressed together with her son on a couch. Arnau was
sleepy and wanted his father to come. He could feel something was going on.
"Hush, Arnie. Your father is away tonight - you can't see him. Would you
like to go back to bed, maybe?" She looked at the Regent with big blue
eyes. What would happen now?
"I think it's better for the boy to be here", said Aral and waved him to come closer. Arnie turned away his face and whined. His mother ushered him to go to the Regent.
"I don't want to! I don't take orders from you!" Lady Marya turned white and covered her face with her hands.
Mik came to her rescue and kneeled beside the boy, holding his arm around his shoulders.
"That is not a way to behave by someone who is going to be a Count." He thought about what the boy must have learnt from watching his father, and continued more urgently: "That attitude will not take you to Imperial Academy, Arnie." The boy bit his lip and looked from his mother, to the Regent, to Mik. He sighed and went slowly over to the Regent.
Aral looked at the boy. He was about the same age as he had been himself when his mother had been murdered before his very eyes. Was it worse to lose a father than a mother in that age? He didn't know.
"Your father has done things that are bad - very bad", Aral said lowly.
"There is even a possibility that you may not ever see him again." Aral closed his eyes. The tears were burning behind the lids - why did all coins have two sides? Count Vorinnis had clearly committed high treason and should be condemned to execution for his actions, or severe therapy if it was evident that he was not sane. Doing the right thing would automatically be wrong against the boy, the whole family. He lifted his gaze, to look at the widow-to-be. Instead of a greyish face with horror in the eyes, he looked into a pair of bright blue ones, with something akin to hope in them.
"How bad?", asked Arnie.
"Almost the worst", answered Aral. "One step away from the worst."
"So he must be punished, then", said the boy in a tone so matter-of-factly, that Aral raised his brows. He looked at Lady Marya, at Lilly, at Lord Michel. They all looked - hopeful?
"If I recall correctly, Count Jaque have a younger brother", Aral continued. "Do you have any contact with him?" The family looked like living question-marks.
Lord Francis Vorinnis walked the few steps up to the porch of the Vorinnis
Castle. It had been 23 years since he had cursed his brother and given his
word not to be back as long as Jaque lived. Some words you had to back on.
His brother wasn't dead, but here he was again anyway.
Lady Marya waited inside the door. She was a very beautiful lady indeed, but wasn't she a little bit young to be Jaque's wife?
"You are welcome, Lord Vorinnis", she said calmly with inquiring eyes. She hadn't known she had a brother-in-law before the Regent had mentioned him. Count Vorsoisson knew about him and his whereabouts, but Jaque had made him swear on his honor, not to ever talk about the younger brother, and he had kept his word.
Lord Francis wondered about the serene woman. She didn't look as sad as one could assume; her husband being very ill, probably terminally ill, from some epidemic disease that rendered him isolated at ImpMil in Vorbarr Sultana. He couldn't remember the name of it, a strange latin name. Behind her he saw a teenager girl and a boy. "Children, come", said Lady Vorinnis. "Meet your uncle, Lord Francis, your fosterer now that your father is gone."
The story continues in "Women of Barrayar".
This story is based upon characters and concepts created by Lois McMaster Bujold. All additional characters and all scenarios shall be considered the property of Ms. Bujold, and used by permission.
© 1998 by Stella Lindblom
Current version by Michael Bernardi, email@example.com
All comments or queries about this Web page to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last updated: March 20th 2007